Monday, Jul 22, 2024

No Questions, No Answers

The Jewish world is shattered. Devastated. Torn. Speechless. How can it be? How can it happen?

Such a tragic ending to the life of one of ours.


And that it was done by one of ours?


How can it be?


How can it be?


How could it have ended this way?


Wherever you go, the same questions ring out, again and again, and sit there unanswered.


People search for answers, for explanations.


How can it be?


Are there answers?


Does every question have an answer?


Let’s examine what a week it was…


It was a week of hope and hurt and unimaginable horror. A week of shattered dreams and broken hearts. A week in which we learned much about ourselves, the depths of Jewish caring and responsibility, and how Jews instinctively spring into action to help another. It was a week in which Jews came together to scatter out in a desperate search. And it was a week in which those who had spread out to check the nooks and crannies of Brooklyn’s streets came together, falling on each other in dreadful agony.


We learned much about our people, but are we any wiser?


Sometimes life in America is so good. We close our eyes and think that Moshiach has arrived and transported us here. We hear of tragedies in Eretz Yisroel and think that it can never happen here. We read of unspeakable murder in a town named for one of the sons of Aharon Hakohein and think we are safe. We rationalize that they died because they lived in Itamar, on the West Bank. They were in a dangerous neighborhood. We didn’t see it as a sign from Shomayim. We saw it as stereotypical Arab behavior. We were able to understand how a Jewish family can be butchered to death by savages. We didn’t internalize it as an act of Hashem.


Three senior tzaddikim were plucked from us in a span of a few weeks. We were able to explain their passing. They were old. They were weak. Their time was up. It was sad, we were bereft, but we were able to explain it. And we thought that while perhaps old people were in danger, young people were safe. We were safe. We didn’t have to worry. We were shaken from our usual complacency, but we didn’t feel that we were in any type of collective mortal danger.


The horrible death of little Leiby Kletzky haunts us because we can’t explain it. It defies understanding. There is nothing rational about it. There is nothing natural about it. We don’t remember anything like it ever happening. We can’t fathom the horror and the cruelty. As hard as we try, we cannot comprehend it. And that is what troubles us. We can’t explain it away.


In last week’s parsha of Pinchos, in describing the korbanos, the Torah states, “Ess hakevess echad ta’aseh baboker, ve’eis hakevess hasheini taaseh bein ha’arboyim” (28:4). There are two parts to the daily korban tamid, one in the morning and one in the evening.


There is a chassidishe explanation with profound implications. There are times when we bring korbanos that are “bein ha’arboyim.” We offer costly sacrifices, but they, the korbanos, are at the eve of their lives. Sustaining the loss of an aged tzaddik is a korban that is bein ha’arboyim. It hurts, but we are given the wherewithal to deal with it.


Then there is another type of korban, the “kevess baboker,” the loss of a young person in the morning stage of his life, with so much promise and potential.


This month, we offered a series of korbanos – zekeinim, tzaddikim, talmidei chachomim – and it hurt immensely.


And then this past week, we offered akorban of the second variety, the kevess baboker.


We offered a sweet, pure shepseleh, with the collective tears of the Jewish people serving as its nesachim.


Our people united on behalf of Leiby. We davened and we did all we could. And then we found out that as we were joined together in thought and prayer, we had offered up a korban tzibbur baboker.


But a korban requires thought, contemplation, machshavah andviduy.


So what should we be thinking? Our minds race with images, facts, statistics and news reports. But what should we be thinking?


There are many people out there jumping on to soapboxes, eager to explain why it happened. There are many eager to promote agendas on the heels of the tragic story, ready to benefit us with their unique insight into Hashem’s decisions.


But perhaps our reaction should be just the opposite. Perhaps we are to raise our hands and admit that we don’t understand, but that we believe just the same. We are maaminim bnei maaminim not because we understand the ways of Hashem, but because we understand that we cannot possibly fathom them.


There is something telling about the fact that the wisest of all men proclaimed, “Omarti echkemah vehi rechokah mimeni.” His words are an enduring lesson that true wisdom often means admitting that the tools we humans have are not always adequate to comprehend what we witness around us.


Today, in the age of information overload, people think that they have to understand everything. There is no such thing as taking a step back and pondering. People expect to press a few buttons and, within minutes, understand every nuance and detail of communal and world events.


There are experts standing ready, dispensing answers like a grandmother gives out candy. Nothing that happens in the universe is beyond the scope of their expertise. They know why Obama dislikes Israel and why gold prices are so high. They can tell you exactly how the Arab Spring developed out of thin air, and why the world permits the lunatic in charge of Iran to develop nuclear weapons unimpeded.


But Yiddishe expertise is to say, “Va’ani ba’ar velo eidah,” as Dovid Hamelech remarked. We are to grasp the one and only truth: that Yad Hashem is a slowly unfolding plan, and that we cannot, in our brief sojourns here, with our limited understanding, begin to appreciate its profundity.


Do we understand why Hitler killed one million Jewish children or why he killed five million Jewish adults? Why pogroms and beatings were as common as snow for our zaides and bobbes in Europe? Do we understand the bloodstained alleyways of our history, the brutality of Tach Vetat, or why the British locked up all the Jews of York in a shul and burnt them?


Has the word “why” ever been part of the Jewish lexicon?


The exalted sons of Aharon Hakohein, Nadav and Avihu, believing that they had figured it out, calculated with great precision that aish, fire, was required for the chanukas haMishkan. They were struck down and died behakrivom aish zarah lifnei Hashem, since they were missing the prime component in avodah: It’s ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe that we are after.


The response of their bereaved father is magnificent in its simplicity: Vayidom. He was quiet. He didn’t question why and he didn’t try to fathom the most appropriate reaction to the cheshbonos of his sons. He recognized the root of the sin which caused their demise was injecting their own interpretation of what needed to be done. Recognizing where they went wrong, Aharon accepted that Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s designs are beyond human comprehension. In doing so, Aharon became the rebbi of Klal Yisroel in kabbolas yissurim.


There is one aveirah, say Chazal, which will live on forever. Hints of it are interspersed in every punishment we face. That aveirah is the chet ha’Eigel. The sin took place way back when the Jews relied on their own intelligence and calculated that Moshe Rabbeinu was late in returning from accepting the Luchos on Har Sinai. They concluded that they were required to fashion a substitute for him. They injected their own understanding and caused a bechiyah ledoros.


The Jewish way of dealing with suffering does not lie in attempting to understand why. When tragedies occur we turn inward and improve our own actions, as the Rambam in Hilchos Ta’anis instructs. The Rambam says that when a tragedy occurs we should know that it is because of our bad actions. If we understand that and rectify ourselves then we will not experience more tzaros. However, if we say that what transpired is merely derech haolam; that its happenstance, or part of a natural pattern of human behavior, or if we seek to explain it through our understanding of science or psychology, and do not engage in teshuva, Hashem will bring more pain upon us until we do teshuva. The Rambam tells us that what we have to know is not why Hashem takes korbanos and in which way he takes them. Zos chukas haTorah, adom ki yomus ba’ohel. It is a chok. The way to prevent further gezeiros and tzaros is by engaging in teshuva for our chatoim and crying out for salvation.


We need to stop terrorizing our kids. An infinitesimal percentage of children are kidnapped and abused by people they don’t know. 99.5% of these dastardly crimes are committed by people they do know. Of course we must be more prudent, and more careful, and warn children about their interactions with strangers, but don’t think that by doing so we can prevent Hashem’splans from being carried out, because these things don’t just happen. They don’t happen by themselves. They happen because Hashem allows them to.


We forgot how transient it all is and how fragile is life itself. We were certain that the gezeirah was only on old people and everyone else was safe. Our kids are safe. Our lives are guaranteed.


Now we know that this is beyond us. The highest ranking official of the NYPD looked out at a flood of cameras and microphones at a press-conference and didn’t even make an attempt at polished reassurance.


“Obviously, in this business, you see a lot of violence, but there’s usually some sort of irrational, twisted logic that’s given to why a violent event took place,” said Ray Kelly. “Here, it just defies all logic. And I think that’s really what’s so terribly disturbing about this case. There’s absolutely no reason.”


Wise words, commissioner.


You see, not understanding shouldn’t be confused with simplicity. It’s a level. It’s a lofty plateau that Aharon reached and imbued all of us with. It’s the koach of vayidom, of nodding in submission and accepting that there is a plan and an explanation – Divine ones – and we are not privy to them.


Not in this world.


Great men have explained the words we say so fervently each Shabbos in the tefillah of Nishmas:“Min ha’olam ve’ad ha’olam, Atah Keil.” From one “ha’alamah” until the next, through those dark periods when Your tremendous chassodim are concealed, there is one constant: Atah Keil.


During his post-Holocaust hatzolah activities, Rav Eliezer Silver visited a displaced persons camp, where he worked to rehabilitate broken survivors, encouraging them to find the strength to go on with life and begin anew.


While in one such camp, he encountered a Jew who was more bitter than most, making it clear to the rabbi that he was done with Torah and mitzvos. Rav Silver heard and felt the man’s pain. It bothered him, and as he sought to help the man and bring him close, he probed to find out why this person had a much deeper animosity for all things holy than the other shattered Jews the rabbi had encountered in the DP camp.


Rav Silver asked him why he was so fed up. The poor Jew looked at Rav Silver and told him about an inmate in his barracks who had somehow been able to smuggle a pair of tefillin into the concentration camp. Word quickly spread in the camp that there was a pair of tefillin among them and the famished Jews longed to get their arms wrapped up in them.


The owner saw the longing of his fellow Jews to strap the precious tefillin onto their withered arms. He agreed to share them, but he had a price. Whoever wanted to put on the tefillin had to pay for the honor with his meager food ration. Each morning, he would extract this awful payment from eager customers, literally taking the food out of their mouths.


“It was tefillin that inspired such selfishness in their owner. It was religion itself that caused such lowly behavior. How can I ever see them as objects of holiness?” the man said to Rav Silver.


Rav Silver sat down next to the shattered Jew and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Why,” he asked softly, “do you choose to focus on the owner of the tefillin? Focus instead on the greatness of spirit of all those other Yidden, the ones who lined up each morning and parted with their sustenance so that they could merit the great light of the tefillin?”


This past week, we saw the depravity and brutality that man, even one mizera Avrohom, Yitzchok v’Yaakov, is capable of. But why focus on that if, instead, we can focus on all the others – the heilige, tayereh Yidden who lined up and forgot about supper and jobs and sleep, and dedicated every fiber of their beings to finding little Leiby, working with flashlights in one hand and Tehillims in the other?


We learned that, really, under everything, we are connected. We are echad, one.


And although it was a lost little yingele that uncovered this truth, we have to grasp the gift we were given – achdus – with both hands and not let go. Because achdus doesn’t just mean joining a search party and working together with people from a different chassidus or community, and mourning along with people you normally wouldn’t speak to.


It means to really care about other people and not to be judgmental. It means loving them like they are your own. Their problems should be your problems. If you can help make peace between people, go and do it. If you can raise some money for a person who needs it, go out and do it. If you can be mechazeik someone, go and do it – and not only because it’s a mitzvah. Do it because you feel their pain as your own, because they are “kamocha.”


Hold on to the gift of achdus not just now, when our lives are darkened by the shadow of collective tzarah, but also tomorrow and the next day, when life returns to normal and the shock of this terrible crime wears off.


Why should any Jewish child not have a school? Why are there Yidden walking around feeling sad and lonely, unwanted or unneeded?


Achdus means that these are our problems. It doesn’t only mean not speaking loshon horah, but speaking lashon tov. It means not to just be a counselor to broken people. It means to be a friend, a real friend. Don’t just pity other people. See them for who they are, your brothers and sisters. Every interaction you have with anyone, at anytime, should be a pleasant one.


For the grieving parents, who’ve stood tall, with graciousness and nobility, there are no words. They know what Yidden have always known – that for one who believes, there are no questions, and for one who does not, there are no answers.


Last Sunday night, when Leiby was at home with his family, an old friend, a dealer in kisvei yad, came to see me. He knows that I have a special feeling for the gedolim of old Lita, and I am especially partial to the remnants of Kelm, the paper trail of letters and notes that combine to tell a tale of spiritual heroism.


This friend came to sell a letter written by a scion of Kelm, later the mashgiach of Gateshead and ultimately of Ponevezh, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, the author of Michtav M’Eliyahu. It was a letter of tanchumin that he wrote to the rosh yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland, Rav Eliyahu Botchko.


I glanced at the letter and skimmed through it. I saw that it had potential as a nicely written, long letter, so I bought it. I had almost forgotten about it when I decided on Motzoei Shabbos to read it. As I read it again and again, I felt that it was sent to me last week so that I may share it with you in the wake of this tragedy which has so captivated everyone. 

I’ve long learned that these letters sometimes have a value that cannot be estimated by experts and collectors. I felt that even though we don’t know what precipitated the writing of the letter, it is as though Rav Dessler is reaching out from the Gateshead of 1947 and addressing us, all of us, reeling from the day’s events. 

There are no words in my mouth, he begins. “Vayidom” is said on an instance like this, when there is no one who can explain or understand other than Hashem Himself. The dreadful news reached me and broke me, without me being able to say anything… It’s been several days and I am still unable to carry on. Desolation has taken hold of my heart, and my mind spins with thoughts, lost as in the desert. What? How?


But it’s forbidden to be meharher… Vayidom… both from speech and contemplation.


It is true, the destruction is great, but Hashem Yisborach will provide you with strength to withstand it.


The nachas and the pain came to this world intertwined with each other, and the very place occupied by suffering will soon be filled with nachas, just as Rabi Akiva said: “Until I saw the foxes exiting from the makom haMikdash, I could not anticipate the imminent fulfillment of a happy ending.”


The Chachomim have said not to say that things which must transpire are impossible to be done. Although the nechamah seems impossible, since it’s “muchrach,” it must be, and it will be.


May Hashem, the Source of good, have mercy and renew our world, so that we merit seeing the fulfillment of the posuk of “hoyinu kecholmim.” We will be as dreamers; even the most terrible suffering is really but a dream. This world is but a dream and the dreams are all that occur in it, until Hashem lights up our eyes and we will awaken and perceive the true reality, and not what we imagine to be real.


May Hashem have mercy on His people and reveal Moshiach to us, erasing the tears from on every face – on every face!


Of course, in its original Hebrew, the poetry and prose are more poignant and moving, but the timeless message remains the same and is relevant to us in our day as well.


This week, we enter the darkest period of the year. We have just lived through one of the most difficult months in a generation. There is no doubt that, collectively, we need zechuyos. Let this be it. Let the achdus we’ve uncovered this past week grow, and become ever more real and vibrant.


We’ve gathered, in tens of thousands, so many times in recent weeks. We’ve filled the streets. We’ve filled the night with our sobs.


We need to get together for simchos. We need to gather together by the thousands publicly, with different hats, clothing and accents, just to cry out, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu,andto sing, “Mi ke’amcha Yisroel.” And we need to gather together with each other in small groups and one on one as well.


Rav Chaim Stein zt”l, whose tefillos broke barriers, is sitting now with little Leiby at the Aibishter’s feet, together a venerable sage and a budding one. Bound by their shared ability to daven with sweet sincerity, they are asking for the same thing. They are davening with Rav Michel Yehudah and Rav Koppelman, with the millions sent to Shomayim through the years, the harugim of Beitar and of York, the victims of Chmielnitzki and Hitler, yemach shemam, the victims of Mumbai and of Itamar, and all the korbanos of the golus, shel boker and shel bein ha’arboyim. And they daven for the same thing we daven for: Hashiveinu Hashem eilechah venashuvah. Chadeish yomeinu kekedem.


And then, as Rav Dessler said, we will experience a new world. We will blink and our eyes will be opened as we are awakened from the dream. We will exult in the dawn of a fresh new day, yom shekulo tov.


Bring us all back. Bring us all together. To Yerushalayim ihr hakodesh, bimeheirah beyomenu. Amein.




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